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Native Children Are at the Heart of ICWA, by Erika Bjorum

In 2014, while I was pregnant with my first child, and for the final year of the Maine-Wabanaki
State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), I was on the TRC’s research
staff. Initially, I drove back and forth to the Maine State Archives in Augusta, combing through
boxes of correspondence, reports and records, looking for materials relevant to the
Commission’s understanding of tribal-state relationships leading up to and following the
passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978. Although I am not Native, it would
have been almost impossible for me to separate the reality of preparing to welcome and raise a
child, and begin a family, from the meaning and intent behind ICWA, which was a response to
explicit and implicit efforts by a colonizing government to control and erase Indigenous nations
by taking Native children from their families and tribes.

After my daughter was born, during her naps and after she fell asleep for the night, I would
listen to the voices of people impacted by state child welfare involvement in Native communities,
who had offered recorded statements of their experiences to the TRC. I often needed to replay
portions of a statement over and over to make sure the written transcription was accurate. And
listening to these stories as my daughter slept, it felt then, and it still feels, that none of us
should forget that children, Native children, are at the heart of ICWA. As the statement
providers emphasize based on their own experiences – keeping Native children connected to
their tribes and cultures is absolutely vital so that the harms of the past aren’t repeated, so that
the best practices of the present are maintained and strengthened.

The TRC archive now holds more than 150 recorded statements, offered by Wabanaki people
impacted by state child welfare practices, as well as Wabanaki elders and tribal leaders, foster
families, Maine child protective caseworkers and administrators, and others with personal or
professional experiences with state child welfare practices in Wabanaki communities. Most
statements were shared during the TRC, a multi-year effort to establish a greater understanding
of what happened to Native children in the child welfare system after the implementation of
ICWA in 1978, as well as to make recommendations to strengthen state compliance with ICWA.
Some statements have been shared since the TRC concluded its work, and the archive remains
open to new statements as well as for statement providers who wish to modify or add to their

More than 100 of the statements provided to the TRC are publicly accessible online, by
permission of the statement provider, through the TRC archive. Although the TRC has
concluded, there will always be more to absorb and learn from these shared experiences as the
work to uphold ICWA and recognize tribal sovereignty unfolds. Today, Native children, families,
and communities continue to intersect with child protective services that operate within state
and federal governments that perpetuate institutional racism and undermine the sovereignty of
tribal nations. ICWA as a federal law is presently in danger of being overturned by the Supreme
Court, underscoring the fragility of the protection that is in place, even now, more than forty
years since its passage. This moment also underscores the critical importance of hearing and
understanding the direct experiences shared by TRC statement providers as to why Native
children need special protections in place, and what role the removal of Native children has
played as a tactic of colonization.

Since the TRC concluded, I have worked with REACH to meet with people who would like to
share their stories and have their experiences recorded to be added to the archive. One setting
in particular from meeting with a statement provider left a powerful impression on me. We were
sitting outdoors, alongside a rushing river, as the woman spoke about being separated from her
family and tribal community earlier in her life, and ultimately returning home. It was a beautiful,
cool late afternoon and the autumn sunlight sparkled on the water as it flowed. Like a river,
these stories, though recorded, are not at all still or fixed in time. They have movement in them,
a kinetic energy that has the potential to pull or push or stir us. As a white person, listening to
the voices and stories in the TRC archive creates a launchpoint to enter the current, and
recognize my personal obligation, as well as our collective human obligation, to be part of
understanding what has happened, what is happening now, and how we can contribute to
repairing and preventing harm.

My daughter who was born during the TRC is now eight years old, and as she grows up, my
appreciation for the preciousness of childhood deepens, and my awareness of the incredible
value of safe connection and mutual relationships to repair harm and build resilience increases.
We do this for each other. We need each other. Our attention and actions can strengthen
connections between us, and grow more equitable relationships and systems.

My grateful appreciation to those whose generosity has opened my view, expanded my heart,
and inspired my intentions and actions. Woliwon, gunalchéesh, miigwech, thank you.

Erika Bjorum is a parent, clinical social worker in private practice, and clinical coordinator of the
Traumatic Stress Research Consortium.

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